Neil Sheehan Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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After all of this experience, both there and here, you chose this colonel to focus on as a metaphor for American involvement. Why that choice?
It was an accident to begin with. John Vann was my friend, I had known him in those three years I'd been in Vietnam and I'd see him periodically afterwards. When he was killed, I went to his funeral at Arlington in 1972, and it was like an extraordinary class reunion. Here were all the figures of Vietnam in this chapel. This man had left the army as a renegade lieutenant colonel, had gone back to Vietnam as a civilian, and ended the war holding a general's position even though he was a civilian. Westmoreland was his chief pallbearer, and a few minutes before the ceremony started, Edward Kennedy, the last of the Kennedy brothers, came in. And I thought of the older brother who sent the country to fight this war in Vietnam in '62 when I first went there, already buried in this cemetery, and here was the youngest brother coming ... he was a friend of Vann's. Sitting with the family was Daniel Ellsberg, who was about to go on trial for copying the Pentagon Papers. He and Vann had remained best friends, despite going in totally opposite directions on the war. It was very moving.
I realized that we were burying more than John Vann. We were burying the whole era of the war. We were burying the era of boundless self-confidence that led us to Vietnam. By that time, John had come to personify the war. He'd spent the better part of ten years there. Everyone else would go for a year or two, three at the most, and he'd spent the better part of ten. And I realized that if I wrote a book about him, I could write a history of the war. I could put the two together, and people might be able to understand the war because they would be reading about it in human terms, through the story of a man whose life turned out to be like a novel.
He had influenced that band of war correspondents who first clued America in to what was going on in Vietnam during the last period of the Kennedy administration.
Oh yes, he'd influenced us enormously, because his first year in Vietnam was during my first assignment as a reporter and David Halberstam's first American war assignment. Vann had an extraordinary mind. He had an incredible capacity to relate to human beings. He was a wonderful actor. He could manipulate people. He could sense human issues. At the same time, he had a capacity to deal with hard facts, like statistics. He was a statistician. Usually those qualities seem to cancel each other out, but they didn't in him. So in that first year, we were faced with the problem of covering a war where the advisors in the field were telling us we were losing the war. We could see that as well when we went out on operations, which was pretty frequent. The general in Saigon, a man named Paul Harkins, always saw the world through rose-colored glasses and kept seeing it through them. He would maintain we were winning the war. You were caught between the two. It was an adversarial relationship. And Vann helped us to understand the war in a way that other advisors couldn't, because he was fearless. He would work down on a tactical level, and he could apply what he saw down there at the strategic level. He gave us perspectives and information that we didn't get from other advisors. He shaped our reporting because we were trying to come to grips with this ourselves, and this man helped us come to grips with it in a way we wouldn't have been able to without him.
There was a moral outrage in what he was telling you about the war that you wound up conveying to the audience back home in the United States.
Yes, there was a moral outrage on several levels. First of all, you've got to remember in that period of time, this country was at the high noon of its power. We thought that whatever we wanted to do was right and good, simply because we were Americans, and we would succeed at it because we were Americans. Vann embodied that, and so did the reporters. We wanted to see this country win the war just as much as those advisors did. We felt we would help to do that by reporting the truth. And so there was the moral outrage over this general and the ambassador in Saigon who kept denying the truth we would see. I discovered later on that they believed these delusions. We thought they were lying to us; I discovered later on they believed what they were saying. They were really deluded men. And then there was the moral outrage over the way the war was being conducted. Vann had the keen sense of honor as a soldier and he was enraged at the bombing and shelling of peasant hamlets, which was routinely done by the Vietnamese and American generals. He thought, first of all, this was terrible. When I say keen sense of honor as a soldier, he was in Vietnam to fight other men, not to kill somebody's mother or sister or kid. And he felt that, first of all, this was wrong, and secondly, it was stupid, because it was going to turn the population against us, and of course he was quite right. So a sense of moral outrage was conveyed on several levels, yes.
You quote him at one time as saying, "This is a political war, and it calls for the utmost discrimination in killing. The best weapon in killing is a knife." You emphasize his criticism of the indiscriminate bombing, which was really the way that we chose to pursue the war. The generals were fighting another war, they were still fighting World War II, and it made no sense in the Vietnam context.
When I got at the records, I realized that they also understood what they were doing. I mean, they thought that they could -- you know, Mao Zedong described guerrillas as fish swimming in the sea; well, they were going to empty the sea. And the Vietnamese generals on the Saigon side thought that they could terrify their peasantry into ceasing to support the guerrillas. I think the American generals, as it turned out later on, deliberately wanted to empty these areas of population.
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